Kingston shows value even in loss
by Jack Warren, CornbeltBaseball.com editor
The loss by Illinois State baseball team in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament title game for the second year in a row was tough to take…for me. Imagine how the coaches and players must be feeling. Unless you’ve played or coached, it’s awfully hard to explain the disappointment.
Unlike last season, when the ‘Birds were hitting on all cylinders leading up to tournament time, this year’s team was stumbling coming into the MVC tourney, losing six in a row and nine of ten. But tournaments are a funny thing. The coaches know that and were able to sell the team on adopting the correct mindset heading to Terre Haute. The guys bought into it and displayed a brand of baseball that had previously carried them to #32 in RPI through the first three quarters of the season. Unfortunately, that all ended one game short of the MVC title and a spot in the NCAA Regionals.
Despite the incredible success that head coach Mark Kingston has had in his five seasons as head coach for Illinois State, this may be his finest coaching effort to date. Those who follow Redbird baseball closely are not surprised that the ‘Birds did not win the regular season title or that they stumbled for a stretch in the season. What really surprises those who know this team is that they were once again able to surpass the 30-win mark – which is something they’ve done in every season under Kingston.
You see, after losing five All-MVC players from last year’s squad (four of whom are playing in the pros), this year’s team was thin. Make that very thin. How thin? Thin as in after your three weekend starters, your next regular pitcher was your third baseman. Thin as in anemic power numbers. Thin as in no one consistent player to bring off the bench for roster flexibility. And if you’d like a graphic depiction of how literally thin this squad is this season is compared to last year, just check out the team photos. Aguillera, Hinshaw, Stanton, Johnson – those were some big boys.
One of Kingston’s great traits is that he doesn’t blame anyone or anything outside the team. Not the weather. Not the conditions. Not the NCAA’s ridiculous policies. Not the fact that his two best recruits of the past two seasons opted for the professional ranks. Not the fact that Sun Belt teams cherry pick the top players in Illinois every year. Although he was aware early on what he was up against with this year’s squad, that never came through in anything he said or did.
One of Mark Kingston’s mentors, Tulane’s Rick Jones, just this week announced his retirement, citing health issues. As he put it, “It was anxiety and panic and all of the things that cause a blood pressure issue. The bottom line is it was from stress. The stress came from our program not being where I wanted us to be and it manifested itself on me and I was waking up at 4 a.m. with an attack because I was worried about what was going to happen to us.” He went on to talk about his doctor’s warning that this could eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke. I’ve often commented to Mark how glad I am that I’m no longer coaching for these exact reasons. Think getting whipped by Western Illinois in two games or getting swept in two straight Valley series doesn’t cause a bit of stress?
Kingston keeps it all in perspective. He understands what is important and preaches that to his assistant coaches. That doesn’t mean there’s no pressure, but as he often says in various forms, it really comes down to controlling what you can and letting the rest go.
Now that the season is complete, it appears that Mark may get a chance to feel the pressure at a higher level. As has been the case for the last three years, his name is once again popping up for head coach openings at higher profile baseball schools. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – Redbird fans have had the rare treat of having one of college baseball’s real professionals. What Kingston has done at Illinois State with players from the state is absolutely remarkable. Believe me, it hasn’t gone unnoticed. And while the outcome of this season may be disappointing, it only serves to remind Redbird fans (and athletic directors from big time baseball schools) that one of the best coaches in the NCAA resides in Normal, Illinois.
Tags: Mark Kingston